Month: December 2021

Wednesday assorted links

1. In nuclear war simulations, most people choose the escalatory options.

2. Reddit thread on which are the funniest comedies.  Not many recent movies on that list.

3. Charles R. Morris has passed away (NYT).

4. Samosa markets in everything?

5. Has Magnus Carlsen played his last world championship match?

6. Will Mexico City ban bullfighting?

7. A possible theory as to why Omicron might be safer — important if true.

How Many Lives has Vaccination Saved?

A Commonwealth Fund study:

The U.S. vaccination program campaign has profoundly altered the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing nearly 1.1 million deaths. Even with only about 60 percent of Americans vaccinated to date, the nation has dodged a massive wave of COVID-19 deaths that would have started as the Delta variant took hold in August 2021. Because of Delta’s rapid and nationwide spread, deaths due to COVID-19 would have far exceeded all previous peaks.

Our estimates suggest that in 2021 alone, the vaccination program prevented a potentially catastrophic flood of patients requiring hospitalization. It is difficult to imagine how hospitals would have coped had they been faced with 10 million people sick enough to require admission. The U.S. has 919,000 licensed hospital beds and typically accommodates about 36 million hospitalizations each year.3 Even the 2.6 million COVID-related hospitalizations that occurred during 2021 placed an enormous strain on hospitals, with many staff lost not only to the virus but also to exhaustion and burnout. Faced with such unprecedented demand, U.S. hospitals operating under crisis standards of care would likely have had no choice but to turn away tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of individuals.

The methodology is somewhat unclear so take this with a grain of salt–many future studies will look at this question–but one million lives saved is not outside the realm of the possible. One million lives saved at a $7 million value of statistical life is a 7 trillion dollar savings. Keep this number in mind when evaluating pandemic investment.

Photo Credit: Lindsay Bonanno

Who is protected against Omicron?

The vaccine made by Sinovac Biotech Ltd., one of the most widely used in the world, doesn’t provide sufficient antibodies in two doses to neutralize the omicron variant and boosters will likely be needed to improve protection, initial lab findings showed.

While the first two studies to be released on the Chinese shot and omicron diverged on how much the vaccine’s immune response is degraded, they both indicated the standard two-dose course would not be enough, raising uncertainty over a shot relied on by millions of people in China and the developing world to protect against Covid-19.

Among a group of 25 people vaccinated with two Coronavac doses, none showed sufficient antibodies in their blood serum to neutralize the omicron variant, said a statement from a team of researchers at the University of Hong Kong released late Tuesday night.

Here is more from Bloomberg.

Austin Vernon on inflation

I think you have tangentially mentioned this before, but might it be that we are worse at measuring inflation/quality in services than goods? So maybe there has been 3-4% inflation post 2008 instead of 1-2% but it isn’t measured because it comes in the form of decreased service quality. Service list prices might be sticky. And now we see the inflation more clearly because the fiscal stimulus is larger and consumption shifted into goods from services.

From my email.  I am not so sure about post-2008, but the point may hold real relevance for today.

Don’t tell Charlie Munger

I don’t believe this result, but it is at least worth a ponder:

Previous research has found significant impacts of daylight and views on the cognitive function of office workers. In this study, we use scores on decision-making performance to estimate the annual economic potential of optimizing daylighting and views in U.S. offices. Cognitive scores were compared against over 100,000 previous test scores to obtain the distributional shift in cognitive performance when working in an office with optimized daylighting and views as opposed to an office with traditional blinds. These changes in performance were then compared to compensation data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Office workers shifted on average from the 52nd percentile to 65th percentile, equivalent to a $11,809 difference in salary per person per year. When conservatively accounting for the number of employees working within 15 ft of a window with blinds, optimizing daylight and views in U.S. offices has the potential to generate $352B ($240B–$464B), or 1.7% of the 2018 U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), in additional productivity. These findings suggest that building developers, architects and tenants should give additional attention to daylight design and façade technology as they consider new building construction, renovation and leasing options.

Here is the full piece by Piers MacNaughton, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Will China ever get Pfizer?

As Covid-19 started spreading in Wuhan early last year, Chinese billionaire Guo Guangchang’s drugmaker appeared to have scored a big win: A partnership with Germany’s BioNTech SE, which went on to produce with Pfizer Inc. one of the world’s most successful vaccines against the coronavirus.

Yet almost a year later, the shot is yet to be approved in mainland China, and in recent weeks Beijing has thrown its heft behind a homegrown mRNA vaccine, allowing China’s Walvax Biotechnology Co. to test its own experimental shot as a booster. The developments are raising new questions about whether the U.S.-German vaccine, licensed for the potentially lucrative Greater China region by Guo’s Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co., will ever be used on the mainland, where President Xi Jinping’s administration has backed a nationalist agenda on all fronts, including in the fight against the virus.

Here is more from Bloomberg.  And will China ever get Omicron?  Yes.  Pfizer, maybe not.

Omicron in China

China’s efforts to keep the new coronavirus strain out of its borders have failed, with the country reporting its first case of the Omicron variant in the coastal city of Tianjin on Monday (Dec. 13).

The timing and location of the new case are not ideal for China’s leadership. Tianjin is right next door to Beijing, which is due to hold the Winter Olympics in a matter of weeks.

The news coincides with an expanding cluster of cases of the Delta variant in another coastal province, Zhejiang. The outbreak has seen at least a dozen publicly traded companies immediately suspend production in the province, according to a Guardian report.

Here is the full story.  Casualties issues aside (which remain unclear), this development may also be of considerable import to the political economy of China, a country that has promised near-zero Covid to its citizens, and derived legitimacy from its degree of success so far.  Yet China has low levels of natural immunity, and the effectiveness of its vaccine investments to date remains uncertain against Omicron, or for that matter against Delta.  And here is The Zvi’s update on Omicron more generally.

Those new vaccine service sector jobs MIE

A man in New Zealand who reportedly received up to 10 Covid vaccines in a day on behalf of others is under investigation by the country’s Ministry of Health, Newsweek reported.

Reports indicate that the unnamed man was paid by multiple individuals to pretend to be them while obtaining a vaccine, in an effort to avoid vaccination requirements.

Here is the full story, via Air Genius Gary Leff.  Not long ago I was wondering how many vaccines you could take in a day and still survive…this is data!

Emergent Ventures winners, seventeenth cohort

Caleb Watney and Alec Stapp, to found a think tank related to progress studies.

Joe Francis, a farmer in Wales, to write a book on the economic and historical import of slavery in the American republic.

Ananya Chadha, freshman at Stanford, general career development, her interests include neurology and electrical engineering.

Eric Xia, Brown University to develop word association software and for general career development.  He is “making a metaphysical sport” and working on

Isaak Freeman, from southeast Austria, in a gap year after high school, general career development.

Davis Kedrosky, undergraduate at UC Berkeley, for economic history and general career development.  Home page here, Substack here.

Katherine Dee and Emmet Penney, for general career development including collaboration.  Among other topics, Katherine has worked on reimagining tech and Emmett has worked on promoting nuclear fusion.

Grant Gordon, to remedy hunger and nutrition problems in East Africa and also more broadly.

Sofia Sigal-Passeck, Yale University, “Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Uniphage, a biotechnology start-up which aims to eradicate bacterial diseases using the combined power of bacteriophages and artificial intelligence.”

Brian Potter, to improve productivity in construction, through both writing and practice.  Here is his Substack.

Daniel Liu, attending UCLA, to study computational biology and for general career development.

Molly Mielke, founder and CEO of Moth Minds, a new company to find talent and revolutionize philanthropy: “Moth Minds is building the foundation that enables anyone to start their own grants program based on finding work that gets them excited about the future.”

Here are previous Emergent Ventures winners.

A cautionary note on Omicron

From my email from Ratufa:

I wanted to point out an issue with some of the metrics that are being used to assess the severity of Omicron.

The growth rate of an outbreak impacts the observed ratios of outcomes. Early in an outbreak those ratios will be biased towards lesser severity for faster spreading strains because more severe outcomes take longer to develop.

For example, it takes on average two days to be admitted to an ICU after hospital admission. The SA Omicron outbreak looks to have a growth rate of .21/day and the original Delta outbreak one of .1/day.  Based on that we would expect the proportion of ICU admissions to hospital admissions to be ~20% lower [1-e^(-2*.11)] than Delta early in the pandemic. And incidental admissions have the potential to confound that number even more.

The impact on hospitalizations and deaths is more dramatic. Positive tests tend to lead hospitalizations by about 5 days and deaths by 2 to 3 weeks. So we would expect the ratio of hospitalizations to positive tests to be ~40% lower and deaths/positive tests to be ~80% lower than in the delta outbreak holding severity constant. Though both those estimates are quite sensitive to the lag and estimate of r.

The growth effect probably doesn’t explain the majority of the difference in outcomes that have been observed. But it is potentially material. And makes me more skeptical of claims of lesser severity I’ve seen so far.

Let Students Stay in Their Dorms!

Georgetown University, like many universities, closes its dorms for the holidays. Why? Closing the dorms is an especially costly policy this year for international students, many of whom will have to quarantine if they fly home. As a result, lots of students have to find temporary housing over the holidays. Kenan Dogan, Kelly He, and Shurui Liu, students of Jason Brennan at Georgetown, offer a compelling analysis.

The average international student must pay $2,400 to fly home. this number is $3,600 to Asia, $1,200 to Europe, and $1,000 to South America, compared to just $400 within North America. parallel to flight costs, the average international student faces a 24-hour trip back home. This number is 28 hours to Asia, 14 hours to Europe, and 11 hours to South America. 

the average student from Asia faces 21 days of quarantine and must pay $1,200 for quarantine, specific to 2021. With winter break being only 25 days, the average student from Asia would spend virtually all their break in quarantine if they decided to travel home. By contrast, the average student in all other continents faces no quarantine, and thus no quarantine costs.

the average international student remaining in the US – but that wants to stay in their dorm – will spend $2,225 to remain in the us, combining housing and travel costs. this number might seem high, but it pales in comparison to the $6,100 median cost of returning home for this group, not to mention the 21-day median quarantine time and nearly 30-hour traveling process.

We find that 76% OF INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS LIVING ON CAMPUS WOULD CONTINUE LIVING IN THEIR DORMS OVER WINTER BREAK this year if given the opportunity. Further, the average international student that would like to remain on campus over break would be willing to pay $1,000 to do so. Given these topline considerations, WE RECOMMEND THE UNIVERSITY ALLOW INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS TO REMAIN IN THEIR DORMS DURING WINTER BREAK.

Georgetown and other universities with holiday shutdowns could even make money on the deal.

*The Anomaly*, by Hervé Le Tellier

A very fun book, it is hard to review without giving spoilers, which would indeed spoil.  I would put it this way: if you enjoyed David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, this is a good next book to read.  Not of the very highest depth, but smart enough to be more than mere entertainment.  Here is the Amazon link.  It was a runaway bestseller and Goncourt Prize winner in France, here is NYT coverage.  It is the best “fun” book I have read in some time.

Psychedelics alter metaphysical beliefs

Can the use of psychedelic drugs induce lasting changes in metaphysical beliefs? While it is popularly believed that they can, this question has never been formally tested. Here we exploited a large sample derived from prospective online surveying to determine whether and how beliefs concerning the nature of reality, consciousness, and free-will, change after psychedelic use. Results revealed significant shifts away from ‘physicalist’ or ‘materialist’ views, and towards panpsychism and fatalism, post use. With the exception of fatalism, these changes endured for at least 6 months, and were positively correlated with the extent of past psychedelic-use and improved mental-health outcomes. Path modelling suggested that the belief-shifts were moderated by impressionability at baseline and mediated by perceived emotional synchrony with others during the psychedelic experience. The observed belief-shifts post-psychedelic-use were consolidated by data from an independent controlled clinical trial. Together, these findings imply that psychedelic-use may causally influence metaphysical beliefs—shifting them away from ‘hard materialism’. We discuss whether these apparent effects are contextually independent.

Here is the full piece, by Christopher Timmermann,, via Anecdotal.